RogerChapman (PBP, 06/24/10):

What is the measure of victory in Afghanistan?

Perhaps Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal wanted to be relieved as top commander of Afghanistan because he knows the war cannot be won. If so, ridiculing the Obama administration was smart. McChrystal will now not be synonymous with Westmoreland.

One could wish President Obama had carefully read Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly (1984), but also Winston Churchill's My Early Life (1930) and Michael Scheuer's Imperial Hubris (2004). Had he done so, perhaps he would have not made the decision in December to commit more troops to Afghanistan.

Ms. Tuchman observes that leaders throughout history have shown a propensity to take military action when rationality begged otherwise. This occurs, she suggests, when stubborn resolve gets intertwined with ridiculous notions of fate.

This mentality was expressed by President Johnson, who acted as if he had no choice about Vietnam: "If American lives must end, and American treasure be spilled … that is the price … of our enduring covenant." From Ms. Tuchman's perspective, folly (not fate) is the issue.

Arguing that "The status quo is not sustainable," Mr. Obama ordered more troops to be deployed to Afghanistan. And as if following Mr. Johnson's script, Mr. Obama said, "We did not ask for this fight." Again, we were to imagine that no other option was possible.

Turning to Churchill, we can note his war experience along the Afghan-Pakistan border, including the Swat Valley, then a part of India. This is the same region which in recent years has been a "safe haven" for Al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents (and perhaps the hideaway of Osama bin Laden).

The lesson Churchill offers is that this part of the world should either be left alone or confronted with overwhelming force. In 1897, the future British prime minister was a cavalry officer stationed in India when an outbreak of violence occurred in the Swat Valley. After colonial garrisons and forts were attacked, the British dispatched two divisions and an auxiliary force, totaling 55,000 men, a sizable response for such a narrowly isolated conflict.

Although today's sophisticated armies can do more with fewer personnel, the British lesson about manpower is clear. During the 1890s, 75,000 British soldiers were stationed in India and were backed by an Indian army of 150,000, a peacetime standing army larger than the 130,000 to 140,000 wartime force Mr. Obama ordered for Afghanistan.

World War should be ruthless

In Imperial Hubris, Mr. Scheuer, a former CIA analyst, argues that the United States must change its foreign policy that fuels Islamic insurgency or fight the equivalent of World War . If the latter, Mr. Scheuer argues for a ruthless offensive that leads to "piles" of civilian dead as well as combatants. Moreover, he suggests scorched warfare: "Roads and irrigation systems; bridges, power plants, and crops in the field; fertilizer plants and grain mills - all these and more will need to be destroyed to deny the enemy its base of support."

The British during the 1890s successfully quelled the Swat Valley in a manner similar to what Mr. Scheuer outlines. They destroyed food supplies, herds, and homes. As Churchill described with absence of pity: "These could all be destroyed, and the tribesman together with their women and children driven up to the higher mountains in the depth of winter, where they would certainly be uncomfortable." Obviously, such an approach today would be politically unfeasible, as well as against our better angels.

Churchill was there long enough to draw some insights about the Pashtun inhabitants: "Every man is a warrior, a politician and a theologian." He also observed, "The numerous tribes and combinations of tribes all have their accounts to settle with one another. Nothing is ever forgotten, and very few debts are left unpaid." Then and now, this is a part of the world where a Westerner is cut off from his cultural moorings.

Fortunately for Churchill, he was transferred before the adventure was over. As the troops launched their heaviest attack, the rebels melted away. But as the invaders retreated during the onset of the worst of winter, they were attacked and ambushed from above. In the words of Churchill, "Indeed at times, so we heard privately, it looked more like a rout than the victorious withdrawal of a punitive party."

This is how Mr. Obama's war might end. Gen. McChrystal will not have to drink that bitter cup of folly.

Roger Chapman, a former member of the U.S. Army's 1st Ranger Battalion, teaches history at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach.